Born: 1948 Primary Instrument: Guitar
Otis Taylor - guitar, banjo, vocals
With Otis Taylor, it’s best to expect the unexpected. While his music, an amalgamation of roots styles in their rawest form, discusses heavyweight issues like murder, homelessness, tyranny and injustice, his personal style is lighthearted. “I’m good at dark, but I’m not a particularly unhappy person,” he says.
Part of Taylor’s appeal is his contrasting character traits. But it is precisely this element of surprise that makes him one of the most compelling artists to emerge in recent years. Guitar Player proclaimed him “arguably the most relevant blues artist of our time,” while Billboard has called him “one of the most innovative, thought-provoking blues artists to emerge in the last 20 years.”
Whether it’s his unique instrumentation (he fancies banjo and cello), or the sudden sound of a female vocal, or a seemingly upbeat optimistic song takes a turn for the forlorn, what remains consistent is poignant storytelling based in truth and history.
Truth and history are at the heart of “Recapturing the Banjo,” Taylor’s fifth release on Telarc. Released in February 2008, the album explores the deepest roots of the banjo an instrument that, despite its common associations with American folk and bluegrass, actually originated in Africa and made its way to the fledgling American colonies in the 1700s via the influx of African slaves. Entertaining and enlightening at the same time, “Recapturing the Banjo” includes performances by some of the most accomplished African-American banjo players on the current roots music scene: Guy Davis, Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Keb’ Mo’ and Don Vappie.
“Over the years, the instrument just lost touch with its roots,” says Taylor, who has proven his banjo chops with two consecutive Blues Music Awards nominations (2005 and 2006) for Best Instrumentalist in the banjo category. “I’m just trying to re-establish that connection.”
Otis Mark Taylor was born in Chicago in 1948. After his uncle was shot to death, his family moved to Denver where an adolescent’s interest in blues and folk was cultivated. Both his parents were big music fans; “I was raised around jazz musicians,” Taylor relates. “My dad worked for the railroad and knew a lot of jazz people. He was a socialist and real bebopper.” His mother, Sarah, a tough-as-nails woman with liberal leanings, had a penchant for Etta James and Pat Boone. Young Otis spent time at the Denver Folklore Center where he bought his first instrument, a banjo. He used to play it while riding his unicycle to high school. The Folklore Center was also the place where he first heard Mississippi John Hurt and country blues. He learned to play guitar and harmonica and by his mid-teens, he formed his first groups the Butterscotch Fire Department Blues Band and later the Otis Taylor Blues Band. He ventured overseas to London where he performed for a brief time until he returned to the U.S. in the late 60s. His next project became the T&O Short Line with legendary Deep Purple singer/guitarist Tommy Bolin. Stints with the 4-Nikators and Zephyr followed before he decided to take a hiatus from the music business in 1977. During this time he established a successful career as an antiques dealer and also began coaching an amateur bicycling team. But with much prodding from Kenny Passarelli and associates, the reluctant Taylor returned to music in 1995.
Two years later he released “Blue Eyed Monster” (Shoelace Music), which riveted the blues world and marked the emergence of a singer/songwriter who has, in his own words, “a way of saying something that seems to be more intense.” Further, he says “you can definitely see how I was forming. There was the Christmas song about a guy that killed his parents. Definitely getting ready to go that way, you know?” In 1998, he raised more eyebrows with “When Negroes Walked the Earth” (Shoelace), an album replete with unapologetic lyrics, stark instrumentation and a gut-wrenching delivery. Playboy described it as “minimalist blues in the John Lee Hooker mode.” Critics and music fans took notice and his talents as a vivid storyteller and accomplished guitar player were solidified. His gifts were further recognized in summer 2000, with a composition fellowship from the Sundance Institute in Park City, UT.
If Taylor’s first two recordings cast a spell on the music world, listeners were officially entranced by “White African” (2001, NorthernBlues Music), his most direct and personal statement about the experiences of African-Americans. He addressed the lynching of his great-grandfather and the death of his uncle. Brutality became his concern in songs that fearlessly explored the history of race relations and social injustices. With this disc Taylor was officially blazing a trail. He earned four W.C. Handy nominations and won the award for Best New Artist Debut.
”White African” was barely in record stores when he began writing the songs that would comprise “Respect The Dead.” Released in 2002, it made him a contender for two Handys in 2003 Best Acoustic Artist and Contemporary Blues Album. The following year, he bent conventions again with his debut effort for Telarc Records, “Truth Is Not Fiction.” Here, Taylor took a decidedly electric, almost psychedelic path, forging a sound which he describes as “trance-blues.” Music critics were indeed captivated as the disc received lavish praise from USA Today, New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, and a nod from the Downbeat Critics Poll for “Blues Album of the Year.”
He quickly followed up “Truth with Double V,” which marked his entrance as a producer and a collaboration with his daughter Cassie, who sings and plays bass. The album scored him a Downbeat Critics Poll win for an unheard-of second consecutive year, while Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Blender, and CNN all gave their thumbs-up. But perhaps the most meaningful accolade came from Living Blues Reader’s Poll, which awarded Taylor (along with Etta James) with the “Best Blues Entertainer” title in 2004.
Telarc released “Below the Fold,” Taylor’s seventh CD, in the summer of 2005. The album is a set of stylistically varied songs that point to a blues-based center but are awash with Appalachian country overtones and moody, psychedelic rock. Once again, the critics raved. Downbeat gave the album four stars, noting that Taylor “has a poet’s soul, with a deep respect for the history of blacks in America and an unshakable curiosity about the human condition.” Paste called him “a country-folk version of spontaneous, talking-blues master John Lee Hooker.” The New Yorker dubbed his sound “Velvet Underground Railroad,” and went on to proclaim that “he may drone but he never stays still, and when he moves he’s always heading toward places you haven’t seen.” At year’s end, Below the Fold landed in the number 12 slot on the Chicago Tribune’s Top 20 album list.
In February 2007, Taylor released “Definition of a Circle,” a stirring 12-song set that covers a wide cross section of emotionally charged themes ranging from the personal to the political, and includes a diverse and outstanding cast of session players: British blues-rock guitarist Gary Moore, blues harpist Charlie Musselwhite and jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara. As always, Otis’ daughter Cassie Taylor adds a layer of haunting vocals and incredible bass work to the set.
Taylor resides in Boulder, Colorado, where he lives with his wife and two daughters.